Even though whisky blenders tend to remain loyal to individual companies and brands for lengthy periods of time, and William Grant’s has serious form when it comes to long-serving employees, Stewart’s half century with the firm is a very special achievement.
Born in Ayr, he recalls: “I left school in June 1962 and began work with William Grant’s as a whisky stores clerk – which was actually a good grounding for what was to come. My boss was the master blender Hamish Robertson. For the first two years the job was just clerical, working with ledgers and everything was written by hand. Then after two years Hamish started training me to nose. I was nosing new spirit from Glenfiddich and Balvenie, and then after it opened in 1964, also new spirit from Girvan distillery.
“Gradually I got more training and then got to make up vattings to the blend recipe. This built up my understanding of different malts, varying ages and different casks. In 1974 Hamish Robertson moved to join William Lawson’s as their master blender and I got his job. I was only 29 years old and just the fifth master blender in the history of the company.”
As master blender, David Stewart was not only responsible for William Grant’s blended whiskies, extending the range in the process, but as single malts began to take centre stage – with the sector being pioneered by Glenfiddich from the 1960s onwards – he played a major role in developing the Glenfiddich and Balvenie single malt line-ups.
Today Glenfiddich extends from 12 to 50 years of age, and a personal favourite of Stewart’s is the 15 Years Old Solera Reserve.
“It’s done well and it was very different at the time we launched it,” he notes. “With The Balvenie I’m particularly proud of DoubleWood. We came to have 10, 12, 15, 21, 30 and 40 Years Old Balvenies, using rum, Madeira and sherry casks, and effectively I created the whole Balvenie range.”
Inevitably there have been changes in the world of whisky blending during the past 50 years, and David Stewart notes:
“Generally, there were fewer component malts in the blend early in my career. Today we use around 25; and the malt content has increased – it’s now up to 30/40 per cent.
“Wood is very important, and we all know that now, but 30 years ago the chemistry of wood wasn’t really understood. In the last 50 years much more American oak has come to be used and much less European oak as a result.
“Someone taking on my job now would almost certainly be expected to have a science qualification, and the role of master blender has also become much more diverse during recent years, with the idea of getting blenders to do more ‘PR’ work since the mid-1980s.
“We’ve not got a much higher-profile role, travelling and conducting tastings. People do like to meet those closely involved in producing the whisky.”
The fundamentals remain the same, and Stewart says: “A master blender has to have a good nose, that’s obviously the key. The organoleptic skills are vital. The blend has to be consistent. He or she needs to know the styles of whisky from all the distilleries of Scotland so that if you have to make substitutions in the blend you know how to choose and group similar whiskies.”
Stewart handed over the reins of the master blender’s job to long-time understudy Brian Kinsman in 2009, but continues to serve as The Balvenie malt master. “I still check all the new spirit samples of The Balvenie and work on new expressions,” he explains, “I’ve been working on the 17 Years Old DoubleWood which appeared in September, and there are other new expressions in the pipeline for next year. I work quite closely with Brian still, and am in the office two or three days each week.”
Able to devote a little more time to relaxing with his wife Ellen, playing golf and watching his beloved Ayr United in action, Stewart says: “I have a nice balance now of work and home life and travel on behalf of The Balvenie.”
David’s favourite expression for drinking on special occasions is usually The Balvenie PortWood, but in early September, he was the recipient of a dinner held in his honour in The Balvenie distillery maltings, attended by a glittering array of the ‘great and good’ of the Scotch whisky world. During the evening Stewart’s achievements were toasted in a glass or two of 50 Year Old Balvenie, bottled to commemorate his anniversary.
“There are lots of friendly people in the Scotch whisky industry,” he says. “It’s a nice community and I’ve been given lots of freedom to get on and do what I wanted by Grant. They’re a great firm to work for, with lots of continuity and consistency. I’m quietly proud of what I’ve done for the company.”
The Balvenie Fifty
Distilled in 1962, The Balvenie Fifty has been matured in a refill European oak sherry hogshead and just 88 bottles (at
44.1% ABV) are available with a RRP of £20,000.
Nose: Surprisingly fresh, focusing on oranges and lemons; fragrant and complex.
Palate: Very smooth, lively for its age, richly-flavoured, with honey, more citrus fruits and soft spices.
Finish: Lingering, with dark berries, black pepper, musty honey, liquorice and oak.
Comments: A commanding, well-balanced veteran dram, lacking the intrusive tannic notes that might have been expected. A classic Balvenie indeed.